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Conservatives make inroads in Atlantic Canada, but Liberal fortress remains strong

HALIFAX — Voters in Atlantic Canada loosened Justin Trudeau's grip on the region Monday by delivering a handful of new seats to the Conservatives, signalling a mild rebuke of the Liberal leader's decision to call an election during the pandemic's fou

HALIFAX — Voters in Atlantic Canada loosened Justin Trudeau's grip on the region Monday by delivering a handful of new seats to the Conservatives, signalling a mild rebuke of the Liberal leader's decision to call an election during the pandemic's fourth wave.

In the six years since Trudeau won a majority government in 2015, the Liberals' dominance on the East Coast has slipped from controlling all 32 seats after that election to 26 seats in 2019 — and the slide continued on Monday as the Liberals won their second straight minority government.

"The Tory vote is up across Atlantic Canada, and I think that is a result of a lot of pandemic frustration," said Donald Wright, a professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. 

"That frustration was looking for a focus, and that focus fell on Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party .... But it could have been a lot worse for the Liberals."

With the vote counting winding down across the region, Liberals were elected in 23 of the region's ridings, the Tories had won eight seats — a gain of four — and the NDP lost its only seat: St. John's East in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The outcome in the New Brunswick riding of Fredericton — one of the most closely watched races in the country — remained uncertain as Liberal Jenica Atwin and Conservative Andrea Johnson were locked in a tight battle well into the night.

The Conservatives, led by Erin O'Toole, held on to their traditional strongholds in southern New Brunswick and picked up an added seat in the province. The party also scored gains in two Liberal-held ridings in Nova Scotia and one in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Meanwhile, Jagmeet Singh's New Democrats had hoped to make gains in the Halifax area, but Singh's popularity in the polls didn't translate to votes.

In Nova Scotia, federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan lost to Conservative challenger Rick Perkins. Jordan has faced criticism over how she has handled the emergence of Indigenous lobster fishing fleets that operate outside the federally regulated seasons.

Critics on both sides of the issue have spoken out about Jordan's leadership. Indigenous groups say they can't understand why their traps are still being seized, even though they have a treaty right to fish when and where they want. And non-Indigenous fishers have complained about a lack of enforcement and the potential threat to the lobster stocks.

Cumberland-Colchester, a Liberal-held riding in Nova Scotia with a long history of voting Conservative, was returned to the Tory fold. The riding went Liberal in 2015, when former Tory Bill Casey ran under the Liberal banner. But Casey bowed out in 2019 and Liberal Lenore Zann won by just over 400 votes later that year.

In New Brunswick, the Tories gained Miramichi-Grand Lake from the Liberals, where incumbent Pat Finnigan did not seek re-election. Conservative Jake Stewart, a former Aboriginal affairs minister in the province's provincial government, narrowly defeated challenger Lisa Harris.

There was no change in Prince Edward Island, where the Liberals comfortably won all four seats.

The NDP saw St. John's East fall to the Liberals despite a determined bid by well-known labour leader Mary Shortall. The NDP's popular Jack Harris, who held the riding from 2008-2015, won again in 2019 but chose not to run this time.

Shortall’s eyes shone as she told a small crowd of supporters she'd be foregoing sleep to stay up for the official results in the riding.

“We probably won’t know until tomorrow,” she said, referring to the final tally in her contest with Liberal Joanne Thompson. “This has been one heck of a journey. It's been the most fabulous, heart-wrenching, joyous 36 days of my entire life.”

As for the see-saw battle in Fredericton, Atwin and her Tory challenger were separated by only a few hundred votes at midnight Atlantic time. The Green Party made history in 2019 when Atwin won a tough three-way race — the first federal win for the Greens outside of British Columbia. 

But Atwin defected to the Liberals in June after a public spat with Green Party Leader Annamie Paul. At the time, Atwin said there had been too many distractions surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

With no clear result almost three hours after the polls closed, Atwin thanked supporters.

"We've come through quite a journey together," she told about three dozen people gathered in a hotel ballroom in Fredericton. Her co-campaign manager, Bradley Henstock, said he didn't expect to have a winner declared before Tuesday. He said more than 2,000 mail-in ballots remain to be counted, and that process won't start until Tuesday afternoon.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2021.

— With files from Sarah Smellie in St. John's, N.L., and Kevin Bissett in Fredericton

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press